Last Friday, General Efraín Ríos Montt, a former Guatemalan military dictator, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison. It was a landmark case; it is the first time in history that a former head of state has been tried for genocide in a court within his own country.
In celebration of the justice that has finally been provided to the Guatemalan people and the indigenous victims of massacres ordered by Montt, the filmmaker Pamela Yates is streaming two of her documentaries for free online: When the Mountains Tremble and Granito: How to Nail a Dictator. A documentary about genocide and civil war may not be the light entertainment you’re looking for but these two docs tell an inspirational story about the power of film.
When the Mountains Tremble
Directors: Newton Thomas Sigel, Pamela Yates
In the 1980s Guatemala was amidst a bloody civil war and ruled under a military dictatorship. Pamela Yates traveled to the country to try and document what was happening, hoping to shed light on a murderous war that the U.S. was funding. She then met Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous woman, part of the Quiche tribe who had been a target of the government’s repression. Mechu narrates the documentary detailing her tragic story including the murder of her father — she later won a Nobel Peace Prize making her the first indigenous woman to receive this honor.
In the documentary, Yates interviews the General of the army, Efraín Ríos Montt, who rose to power through a coup. Little did Yates know that 25 years later this interview would serve as evidence in the genocide trial against the General.
Granito: How to Nail a Dictator
Director: Pamela Yates
Taken from the WITNESS blog, in Pamela Yates’ own words:
“In 2003, I went to Guatemala to present the first public screening of When the Mountains Tremble at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City… In the audience that night was an international attorney. She approached me afterwards and asked whether I had kept all of the filmic outtakes from When the Mountains Tremble. She was investigating a genocide case, and two of the generals in When the Mountains Tremble were part of that investigation – General Efraín Ríos Montt and General Benedicto Lucas García. Could I go and find the entire interviews I’d done with the Generals? Could I find all of the film of military missions including aftermaths of massacres?
And so we embarked on a kind of archeological dig through 25-year-old outtakes of 16mm negative film and ¼ audio recording tape, the raw materials of When the Mountains Tremble. Miraculously, I and my Skylight Pictures partners—Paco de Onís, the Producer, and Peter Kinoy, the Editor — had kept all of the outtakes in a warehouse in the swamplands of New Jersey.
The lawyers were as surprised as we were when they saw the outtakes. In 1982, I had asked: “What would you say to the charges that it’s the Army that is massacring (Maya) peasants in the highlands? Is there repression on the part of the Army?”
Ríos Montt responded, “There is no repression on the part of the Army. Our strength is in our capacity to make command decisions. The Army is ready and able to act, because if I don’t control the Army, then what am I doing here?”
My filmic evidence helped prove the prosecution’s command responsibility liability theory: Ríos Montt ordered the targeted killings. All of this became the film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, as well as part of the legal case.”
Dictator in the Dock
Director: Pamela Yates
A note from the filmmakers:
“We filmed the entire [genocide] trial (of course, how could we not?) from its beginning on March 19, 2013 to its conclusion on May 10, 2013. We encourage you to watch a web series we’ve been posting titled Dictator in the Dock, of dramatic filmed vignettes from the trial. We will eventually release a film of this trial as part of a trilogy that began with When the Mountains Tremble in 1982, and continued with Granito: How to Nail a Dictator in 2011 – and now with the Ríos Montt conviction we have concluded a 31-year story arc! There could hardly be a better example of Martin Luther King’s famous words, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”
UPDATE 5/10/16 at 6:32 p.m.: The retrial for Efraín Ríos Montt has been suspended. In 2013, he was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. According to the New York Times, Judge Yasmín Barrios sentenced 86-year-old Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison. “We are completely convinced of the intent to destroy the Ixil ethnic group,” Judge Barrios said at the time. The decision was overturned 10 days later.
The unprecedented case would mark the first time that a former head of state is convicted and indicted by a national tribunal. With his lawyer claiming that he suffers from dementia, the case was once again suspended earlier this month, according to Telesur.
On the three-year anniversary of the 2013 decision, Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís, Peter Kinot Marta Casaús Arzu, and the Skylight Team are standing in solidarity with the Ixil ethnic group. For one day only, they are offering films that bring attention to the“ongoing quest for justice in Guatemala.” Check them out below:
- Watch Dictator in the Dock Episode 23, The Verdict here.
- Watch When the Mountains Tremble here.
- Watch Granito: How to Nail a Dictator here.